Karim Benzema has confidently declared France “will qualify” for next summer’s World Cup as Les Bleus prepare to face Ukraine in the first leg of their play-off in Kiev tonight.
Didier Deschamps’ men have been forced down the play-off route after failing to get the better of Spain in their qualification group, although the form they showed in finishing second to the reigning world champions was nevertheless impressive.
One final hurdle stands in the way of France and a fifth successive appearance at the finals, and on paper it is a tough one with Mikhail Fomenko’s Ukraine coming into the tie on the back of an 11-game unbeaten run. Real Madrid striker Benzema, however, has no doubt what the final outcome will be after Tuesday’s return leg at the Stade de France.
“We will give everything in these two games,” Benzema said. “We will qualify, I am sure. There is no choice. At the end, there is the ticket to the World Cup in Brazil – the most beautiful. A World Cup in the land of football.”
Ukraine, who finished second to England in their qualification group, have arguably the toughest assignment of anyone in the eight-team play-off round. Striker Marko Devic is under no illusions about the scale of the task, and said: “I truly believe in our team, but I’m realistic and I think that France are favourites.”
Sweden coach Erik Hamren believes Portugal are heavy favourites to win their play-off, but also knows they have a deadly weapon of their own in striker Zlatan Ibrahimovic.
The two teams meet in Lisbon tonight before the return match in Stockholm on Tuesday.
Hamren said: “Portugal are favourites. They are favourites because of their ranking. They are the highest-ranked team in the play-offs and, in my opinion, they are world class when they play at a really high level.”
Much has been made of the meeting between two of world football’s biggest stars – Paris St Germain striker Ibrahimovic and Real Madrid forward Cristiano Ronaldo.
“There’s lots of light on Zlatan,” said Hamren. “He’s a world-class player and our captain. It’s a fight between two world-class players but we need the team as a whole to be good. Zlatan needs that support. If we are playing well as a team then he can be the matchwinner.”
Iceland will bid to become the smallest nation to reach the finals when they host the first leg of their play-off against Croatia in Reykjavik tonight. Under the guidance of their Swedish coach Lars Largerback the island nation, with a population just over 300,000, is on the cusp of reaching a major tournament for the first time.
Croatia head into the play-off under new coach Niko Kovac after Igor Stimac stood down following their 2-0 defeat to Scotland in their final qualifier.
Romania will have to crack one of the meanest defences in the business to book their place in the finals for the first time since 1998. The Romanians take on Greece in Athens in the first leg with the hosts having missed out on an automatic place in Brazil after finishing runners-up to Bosnia in Group G but they emerged with their reputation for strong defence intact after conceding just four goals in their ten group games.